As Pope John Paul II lay dying, thousands of pilgrims and other well-wishers gathered outside his window, offering prayers, hoping for a miracle or at least a glimpse of the ailing Pontiff. One of those pilgrims was Fr. Roderick Vonhogen, a Dutch priest from Amersfoort in the Netherlands, who had begun immersing himself in a new form of technology called podcasting, a short-form digital radio show that is easily captured through the internet.
As Fr. Roderick saw people’s reactions during the Pope’s last days, he began to wander around, digital recorder in hand and ask questions of the younger people in St. Peter’s Square. He added some of his own commentary and then posted his podcast on the internet. The result was astounding. Thousands of people began to download his show, “The Catholic Insider.”
His podcast became so popular that he began doing a daily show that resembled the morning radio programs he grew up listening to. Each morning Fr. Roderick arises to produce another podcast called Daily Breakfast and engages an audience not merely with religion but also with his thoughts about modern culture—everything from the hilarity of an episode of “The Simpsons” to the spiritual themes in Star Wars to playing his Nintendo Wii video game system and getting in shape for his first marathon.
As a pioneer in Catholic podcasting, Fr. Roderick continues to capture awards for his work not only in the field of religion but also in the more general categories like “Best Mobile Blog” at the annual podcast expo.
Fr. Roderick sat down with us to discuss podcasting, his call to the priesthood and what his young listeners in Europe think about the Church.
BustedHalo: People call you the podcasting priest, where did you come up with the idea to get involved in this new media?
Fr. Roderick Vonhogen: It happened by accident actually. One of my parishioners emailed me and said “Hey I heard about this thing called podcasting! Do you know anything about it?” I didn’t. So I started searching and found one of the very first podcasts out there and thought, “This is amazing! I can make a radio show but instead of having this limited reach of only my own village or town I can reach the other end of the world!
So I got all fired up, started my own podcast when I was in Rome at the Vatican right at the moment when Pope John Paul II fell ill. I made a documentary about that and just improvised and the next day thousands of people were emailing me and saying “I love this” and “Please continue” so that’s how I got started!
BH: Was it ever a dream of yours to be a talk show host?
RV: In a way, yeah—strangely enough it was! I was always doing fake radio shows when I was a kid with my friends and we’d do like these characters and put music over our voices with this old fashioned tape recorder. But of course the only audience we got was our parents! But that’s not a very nice audience because they were like “Yeah, yeah, OK one minute. Ok that’s interesting, but I really have to go shopping now honey! (laughs)” It really was a dream for most of my life but then I became a priest and I said to myself, ‘OK you’ve received another vocation now that is over.’ But somehow God always comes back to your initial talents or desires or the things that you’ve done in the past and somehow like a boomerang it comes back into your life. I can do this now within my ministry and as a priest which is absolutely cool!
BH: What led you to enter the seminary?
RV: I was an altar boy when I was in primary school and, to me, thepriesthood seemed like the most boring, awful, thing someone could ever choose to become! My local parish priest didn’t do anything to convince me otherwise. He always complained about how being a priest was terrible and how he had to deal with all these meetings and all the annoying choirs who always sing the wrong songs and he just wasn’t a very happy priest! And plus he was old! Most of the priests I knew were like 70 or 80 years old sometimes so I had never seen a young priest! So to me the priesthood was something I associated with a very boring life, not fun, and you’re completely out of the loop of what’s happening in the world. And I was into Star Wars and science fiction and astronomy so I couldn’t imagine that someone would choose to become a priest by their free will!
All that changed when I entered high school and I met up with a lot of resistance towards the Catholic faith. Since I was an altar boy, I went to church every week. But suddenly all my classmates told me that I was crazy. I mean ‘why should you go to church? The Pope is an old man. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s back in the Middle Ages.’
Somehow that appealed to my curiosity, because the question I had was ‘’how come its been around for so long and millions of people in the world are following this religion?’ If it’s all nonsense, then why is it still around?’ That’s when I started researching. I started reading books in the library about church history and even some letters from the Pope that I found in a magazine…and all of a sudden I was like ‘This is a lot more interesting than I thought! This makes sense and there’s more to it.’ And gradually I became more and more interested. But that was on an intellectual level only!
BH: Emotionally was it different?
RV: Yeah—I kind of thought that something was wrong with my life because I would go to church and would read about religion but I’d never prayed! I didn’t even know how to do that! I mean nobody ever taught me how to pray! So I found a little booklet that my Bishop gave me on my confirmation when I was 12. It was a small book with prayers for young people. And you know, back then I wasn’t too interested so it had been gathering dust on the bookshelf. But I had found that and I started praying in the morning or the evening with the prayers from that little booklet. I literally learned to pray from that little booklet. And that was when I started to feel ‘wait a minute, God is pulling me here. He wants me to do something. What’s going on?’ Gradually step by step I discovered that it was to be in the priesthood. Years and years later I was ordained by that very same Bishop who had given me that booklet and who is now the Archbishop of Utrecht.
BH: Did you ever tell him this story?
RV: I did and he said “Well that’s how God works! You never know when something may actually start to grow and it might take 10 or 12 years but eventually God will always work in His way and in His time.”
BH: What were your first couple of years in the Netherlands like as a priest?
RV: Wonderful and terrible. (laughs) I was ordained a priest in a country where there are almost no young priests! So that resulted in me being nominated in a parish first as a deacon and then as a priest without any other priests around! So I basically had to run a parish and I had never done something like that before. The only formation I had was in theology and of course, just a little bit of practical stuff but it was very overwhelming and this was in a rural part of the country. Which meant that although the population was still very Catholic they were also used to running the parish by themselves. I was kind of an intruder and it was kind of a struggle to find a good way to lead the parish because I was very young.
I was twenty-eight which I thought was pretty old but once I got into parish work I realized “Man I’m way too young for this work (laughs). So most of the people in church who were very old, they tended to look at me as ‘oh this young guy—what does HE know?’ So that was very tough to combine this leadership and I was aware that I still had a lot to learn. But gradually I started to discover that the more difficult it is, the more grace you get to actually do something. And after five years I was just a very happy priest. But it was hard I have to admit that.
BH: You talked about your interest in things like Star Wars and “The Simpsons” and even did a podcast from “The Simpsons” soundstage…why did you start covering these topics?
RV: The thing I wanted to do was to create podcasts that I would listen to if I were 17 years old and not interested in God. So I try to find ways to reach people who might have some lingering religious questions or interests but might be completely turned off if I would do shows that would be called [in stodgy British accent] “Fr Roderick’s Sermon of the Day.”
I didn’t want to preach in those podcasts so one of the things that I discovered while I was doing these podcasts is that you have to listen very carefully to what your audience is telling you that they’re interested in. And I discovered with my first podcast which was called “The Catholic Insider,” was that more than half of my audience wasn’t Catholic. But they had a lot of questions about the faith—they were very interested in getting a peek behind the scenes at what’s going on and how is this church even working? But they were just regular people—not religious but very open. But of course interested in a lot of other stuff like movies and music and so I thought, ‘what if I did a podcast on—for instance—Star Wars.’
Instead of doing the geek stuff that a lot of people and other podcasters are doing—you know they just talk about the next Star Wars animated movie and how to dress up as Chewbacca. But that’s not going to be very helpful for people. So instead I decided to do a show about all the religious influences that you can trace in Star Wars. Because the story is of course very successful for a reason. It contains all these hidden religious themes that we recognize when we see that movie. And that’s why it works on almost a universal level and there are more movies like that.
Another good example is the Chronicles of Narnia which is just chock full with references to Jesus to the history of salvation. But if you’re just watching the movie you might not be aware of that. Even in Harry Potter, there is a very strong Christian influence in the themes and in the things that happen to the characters. So what I do is, I talk about the movie, I talk about the books and I explain what is the origin of these ideas—where does it come from? So you can give an almost hidden catechesis in that way and usually what happens is that the audience that looks for Harry Potter information—well they start listening into my Harry Potter podcast and they say ‘Hey this is interesting. It’s hosted by a priest but he’s not preaching to us! He seems to be just as geeky as we are—maybe more—let’s check out his other show.’ And then they start listening to the “Daily Breakfast” and they get hooked on that. So that’s how you kind of bring in a brand new audience. And that seems to be working very well!
BH: What’s the difference between “The Catholic Insider” and “Daily Breakfast?”
RV: “Catholic Insider” came first, yes, but that was basically just audio documentaries. I would take the recorder wherever I went—like the Vatican—or sometimes I’d bring it on vacation. Like I went to Ireland and if I found an old church I’d go inside and basically start telling the history of the church and since it’s like a documentary, you kind of take people with you on a journey. Which works very well it’s very different from the kind of sterile studio environment.
But that was only a weekly show because I had to do a lot of editing and production for it. I wanted to have a daily show and one of the things I used to do when I was a kid was to do a morning show which is a very popular format in Europe. They call it a breakfast show. The main aim of a show like that is to wake you up to give you some positive energy and help you get through those first difficult hours of the day. And when I was a child I would do these fake morning shows because I was listening to those shows all the time as a teenager. And that idea came back to me and I said ‘What if I do a Catholic morning show?’ And I would mix in all these topics like movies and music and culture but I would also be answering wacky questions about these strange Catholics. I would talk a little about the Bible and it would kind of be like a sandwich. Almost like a breakfast where you don’t only eat bread, you have also cereal and orange juice, coffee. Well I wanted my show to be like that—it’s a little bit of everything and over time you can transmit quite a bit of faith and catechesis. But it’s blended in, it’s not quite in your face and the audience seems to love it.